The New Era of Mobile
The 8:15 a.m. train to Grand Central Terminal was crowded, and, standing in the back of the car, I observed the commuting rituals of 30 suburban New Yorkers. Eight were reading newspapers, five listening to iPods, five on BlackBerrys, and four were engaged in honest-to-goodness, face-to-face conversations. A lone Kindle made an appearance toward the front of the car. The balance spent the 27-minute ride into Manhattan staring out the windows or sleeping.
An unscientific survey, to be sure, but one that lent some insight into where the publishing industry has been, and where it's going in terms of mobile media. Those five BlackBerry users weren't simply checking e-mail; they were on social networking sites, reading industry news or, like me, browsing the morning's mobile edition of The New York Times.
A recent Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) study, "Going Mobile: How Publishers Are Preparing for the Burgeoning Digital Market," indicates that the print media is moving quickly to develop such platforms. Almost 52 percent of publishers surveyed indicated that they are distributing or formatting content for mobile.
But the platform is just the cost of entry into the new era of mobile. The ABC survey also indicates that publishers haven't yet grasped the power of this new channel to generate engagement with customers, revenue from subscribers and, more significantly, advertisers.
Case in point: The survey reported that publishers believed that sponsorships, search, banners and other traditional online advertising formats had the "brightest future" as revenue models for their mobile initiatives. Certainly these, coupled with subscriber fees, will account for the bulk of mobile revenue for the publishing industry, at least in the near term. Indeed, Verizon recently reported mobile banner click- through of 2 percent, much higher than the 0.3 percent it found for traditional online banners. The ABC survey also indicates that publishers "are anxious to tout their brand's extensive distribution platforms" from a circulation-auditing perspective. Ka-ching!
These types of numbers are attracting advertisers to mobile, but alone they won't be enough to keep them there. Those click-through rates are sure to erode as clutter increases, and as the publishing industry adopts mobile on a widespread basis, relative circulation is unlikely to change dramatically. Additionally, traditional online media budgets, even when applied to mobile, will likely fluctuate along with seasonality, economic conditions and other familiar factors. The key is to differentiate your mobile offering to gain incremental advertising dollars that show positive return on investment, as they are less prone to such fluctuations.
How then to make your mobile advertising offering stand out? The answer may lie in the "other" types of mobile advertising (mentioned by a mere 4 percent of ABC survey respondents) that surely present the greatest opportunity for publishers to survive and thrive in the long term.
The economic downturn made one thing very clear from an advertising perspective: Marketers are demanding accountability and innovation from their agencies and media partners. This has heralded a drive to what we've been calling data-driven marketing—the idea that new technologies, which give unprecedented access to customer behavior and passion points, will enable scalable personalization for the first time. Direct marketers have known the benefits of segmentation for ages, yet the promise of true one-to-one media communication has been, until now, largely unobtainable.
Mobile changes this. By connecting traditional subscriber data with location, affiliation and passion-point intelligence, advertisers can begin to drive pertinence—the combination of content, credibility and connectivity, all delivered at the right place at the right time.
Fortunately, publishers are in a prime position to deliver this value to data-driven marketers, given their two greatest assets—content and audience—and mobile can accelerate its monetization.
Content delivers relevance and credibility to marketers, and subscriber data, on an individual level, is what fuels scalable personalization of marketing messaging. A key for publishers will be to deliver the content, whether traditional news and feature writing delivered via mobile or, more impactfully, through mobile applications that enable an advertiser's brand to engage in a trustworthy, relevant and timely way.
The Role of Content
Let's discuss content first. Despite those who said the Web would spell doom for traditional news organizations, and despite the emergence of blogs, tweets and other methods of "citizen reporting," there is still a role for professional journalists.
Rather than discount citizen reporters though, successful media outlets are incorporating them into what Shel Israel, in his book "Twitterville," describes as "braided journalism." This enables news organizations to capitalize on the immediacy and on-location aspect of user-generated content, while offering an avenue to engage with their readerships. News outlets from CNN to local newspapers have created event-specific Twitter lists to monitor man-on-the-scene reporting of events (such as the recent earthquake in Haiti), while leveraging their professional reporting resources to vet this information and provide deeper context to events.
Newsweek recognized this trend early on and has rebooted its layout and content to provide depth and perspective versus trying to compete in covering breaking news with 24-hour cable and online news sources—a losing proposition. What Newsweek is doing is emphasizing the type of content that builds trust and loyalty from subscribers, attributes that might be transferred to an advertiser.
But it's not just about news. Publishers of every variety can leverage social media connectivity to add value to subscribers and advertisers alike, while spreading their content virally. In growing numbers (27 million people, according to comScore), your subscribers are accessing social media platforms via mobile. Integrate your content with these platforms, increase your relevance and value to readers, and gain new ones, while leveraging data available from communities like Facebook to bring better targeting to advertisers. "Social connectivity" will enable you to target your readers based on their passion points, affiliations and real-time locations, thus enhancing your relevance.
Vitally important, then, is to build the trust and added value that will allow you to get subscribers to opt in to data-driven marketing messages. A publication is like a mutual acquaintance that can connect a reader and an advertiser for a "first date." If trust exists, subscribers will be more receptive to your advertisers' messages, and that receptivity will translate to reader response, conversion and potential relationships for those advertisers.
A New Level of Audience Segmentation
Audience, then, is the second factor in this equation, and audience data on an individual level can dramatically drive ROI. Sure, publishers have realized the inherent value of their subscriber lists for decades—hence the development of the list-brokerage industry. But mobile, with its always-on, location-enabled components, combined with social media, allows for the potential of individual-level profiling and personalized marketing messaging.
This allows a marketer to screen (or have you screen) your subscriber list, identifying microsegments for whom an offer can be developed and delivered personally.
A common objection to this approach is that such segmentation can very quickly reduce a subscriber list of 100,000 down to numbers in the hundreds or less. No matter, the exponentially higher value of these potential "brand champions"—whose earned trust among peers and relationship with you enables impactful, viral messaging—will not be lost on the savvy data-driven marketer.
Rapleaf, which provides companies with social data about their audiences, helped a consumer package goods company identify 20 socially influential individuals from a list of more than 4 million customers. These folks were targeted, engaged and empowered to deliver a message on behalf of the brand, resulting in a self-propagating campaign that delivered significant ROI.
Certainly these brand champions are worth more than the nominal per-name fee, and perhaps more than the not-so-nominal full-page ad rate that your advertisers are currently paying. The key will be to prove to your advertisers that you're not simply reformatting your content for a mobile audience, but that you can leverage the "fourth screen," as it's called, to drive incremental value. You own the relationship with this audience; don't abuse the privilege, and you will be well-positioned to capitalize on what my colleague Thom Kennon calls "the most private and personalized touchpoint we've ever seen." Through GPS enablement, radio frequency identification (RFID) and social connectivity, it certainly will be, if it isn't already.
A word of caution: Don't get hung up on the specific technologies—Facebook may be replaced by another community platform, just as it has, for many audiences, replaced MySpace. RFID may be usurped by another protocol. But the idea behind Facebook, Twitter and location-based technology—community and connectivity—will live on in whatever form. Become an active, engaged community-enabler now, and your publication's clout will adapt to whatever new comes along. The idea is to engage your readers and enable them to become advocates for your advertisers' brands.
Moving Beyond Facebook
Let's look again at that overcrowded train two years from now. The numbers may have changed—perhaps there are five Androids, only four iPhones and the Skiff may have replaced the Kindle as the periodical delivery vehicle of choice. I'd wager that a few still will be reading their morning news in print, and a couple of riders will be engaged in chat with their seatmates.
What about your subscriber? He or she may be any one or none of the above, but as the train pulls into the station, his mobile device's GPS system updates his location. This triggers a trusted SMS message from your publication about an advertiser's product on sale down the block (relevant because you know he just read your category buying guide online and belongs to the gym next door) along with a discount code. Before getting off the train, he mentions the deal to his seatmate. Later, when redeeming the code, social connectivity enables the reader to share the event with his network, driving traffic to your publication's site, increasing the perceived value of your brand, and virally increasing exposure and ROI for the advertiser.
This example, admittedly, is fairly straightforward and certainly possible using today's technology. But the premise—that your content, delivered through a pertinent and timely channel to readers who trust you, and who are connected and engaged with others—can be the basis for a differentiated and profitable mobile strategy for your publication.
Jay Wilson is vice president, director of Customer Dialogue, at Wunderman, a global direct marketing agency serving clients such as Microsoft, Dell, Novartis and Abbott Labs.